Activists unite to bring The Dinner Party to Chicago

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– Coming together/working together
– Finding and transforming a space
– Working with the artist
– Raising funds and generating interest

– Coming together/working together

Meeting every Tuesday from 1979 until the opening in 1981, The Dinner Party Project in Chicago Steering Committee and staff hammered out the details. They reached out to diverse groups to include a network of 1,300 volunteers and supporters who worked to realize the project. It took two years and hundreds of volunteers to accomplish the necessary financial planning, exhibition construction, publicity and cooperation from city, corporate and foundation leaders.

– Finding and transforming a space

From abandoned factories to warehouses, the group visited over 150 properties, trying to find a suitable site. Space requirements dictated that there be no intervening support structures in a 60’ x 60’ space. Mary Jane Jacobs, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art suggested the use of the Franklin Building in Printers Row in the South Loop to Bette Cerf Hill, director of the South Loop Planning Board and a Steering Committee member. Printers Row housed the printing and engraving industry in Chicago, but many companies had moved or closed. The area was in transition.

With developer Royal Faubian’s generous offer to renovate the first and thirteenth floors including the installation of an elevator, and to provide the space rent free, The Franklin Building at 720 South Dearborn Street was secured to host The Dinner Party exhibition. A fitting inscription over the entrance to the building still reads: “The excellence of every art must consist in complete accomplishment of its purpose.”

The enormous task of transforming this raw space into a museum-quality site was in the hands of Pauline Saliga, who moved from her post as curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art to become the Exhibition Coordinator.


– Working with the artist

Not only did the space need major renovation, but the venue and presentation had to meet the approval of the artist, Judy Chicago, whose standards were high and whose team was uncompromising. Negotiations, construction of the site and the installation of the exhibition were fraught with tensions, setbacks and obstacles; but commitment to the ideals of The Dinner Party exhibition and the willingness of the group to accommodate and preserve the artist’s vision rose above those to realize the project.

– Raising funds and generating interest

Finding the funds to finance the project in such a short time frame put the staff and committee under tremendous pressure. By the opening, $67,325 in cash had been raised (amounting to $165,511 in 2011 terms) coming from multiple sources. Factoring in in-kind donations, which included hundreds of hours from 1300 volunteers and the build-out costs for the first and thirteenth floors, installation of elevators, and rent and office space for five months, the real costs for the project were closer to $500,000.

office staff

Hundreds of donations were made representing individuals, corporations and foundations. Major donations from special contributors were pivotal in enabling this project to happen. (See List of Special Contributors at right) Drawing from the network of the resourceful Steering Committee, in-kind contributions of time, space and expertise were abundant, including professional services and office space.

Commitment to realizing the project was so deep that several Steering Committee members took out personal loans and second mortgages to meet the initial investment obligations. Guarantors for loans took it on faith that the committee would fulfill their

Film screenings
Screenings of the film Right out of History: The Making of the Dinner Party, by Johanna Demetrakas, were held in various locations to generate funds and interest in the project. The film provided an incisive and moving picture of Judy Chicago’s struggles, tears and joy in the long effort to create and exhibit this work of art and introduced viewers to the scope of the exhibition.

Special events
From small private parties held in women’s homes to an exclusive party at Tiffany’s where table settings honored Chicago women of achievement, numerous special events were designed to generate media interest and capital. Mayor Byrne had a private walk-through with the artist. Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago hosted a benefit with Judy Chicago in attendance. A press preview and Opening Gala in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art preceded the public opening. A contest to design the street banners was sponsored through Women in Design. And many groups gathered for private showings and special parties: ranging from college alumnae associations to needleworking guilds and bus trips from around the Midwest.

Publicity was key to gathering support and generating and sustaining interest in the project. Liz Mitchell worked with committee members to build awareness from many angles and to develop press kits that supplied extensive background about the making of The Dinner Party, highlighted the collaborative efforts of the project, and covered issues including women’s equality, women’s crafts and women’s history. Media coverage included interviews for Judy Chicago on local TV and radio shows, articles in the mainstream press, and calendar listings and mentions from society columns to needlework magazines.

events collage


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